This past weekend I had the opportunity to attend and speak at SXSW’s Interactive Festival for the first time. After hearing about SXSW for some many years, it was interesting to see what the conference was all about.
I’m not sure I’ll attend SXSW again.
Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the conference in many ways. I got to see friends that I haven’t seen in months. I met people that I’ve always wanted to meet. I had fun speaking with people about the iPad, and it was great to experience Mobile Monday in another city.
Austin is an amazing city. I had a blast in the city, and I feel like I saw and experienced more of the city than I typically do at conferences.
Unfortunately with a few notable exceptions, the conference itself was not terribly good.
I’m not sure why this is. I have read others talking about how this conference was worse than previous ones. It saddens me to think that when I finally manage to attend the reknowned SXSW, that it has jumped the shark. But it appears that may be case.
One of the main problems in my opinion is the dominance of panels at the conference. I find panels to be of lower quality overall than presentations by a solo presenter.
I’m not sure why SXSW has so many panels, but I have a few generous and not so generous theories.
The generous theory is that SXSW values the input of the community. It starts with allowing anyone to vote for session, continues with selection of panels, and is demonstrated by their core conversation sessions designed to foster discussion instead of presentations.
The less generous theory is that people propose panels solely to get free passes for themselves and their friends.
I was told essentially that on my return trip to the airport. I took a shuttle and bumped into a friend. He asked what I thought of the conference, and I lamented the fact that the sessions had been so poor.
Two of the other passengers in the shuttle told me that my mistake was that I didn’t get a pass for the conference. They didn’t know that I was a speaker at the conference so they proceeded to tell me how I needed to get on a panel so that I could get a free pass.
Then they laughed about how once you have a pass and are on a panel, you don’t have to prepare anything. You just roll into your panel, answer questions, and then use your pass to network and party.
I was extremely offended. I couldn’t believe that they could have such disrespect for people’s time and money.
Even though I only had four minutes to present during my panel, I started researching as soon as I knew I was going to be on the panel.
I had several pages of notes in addition to my slides. I decided to hack the format to make the panel more interesting by treating my presentation like an Ignite talk which meant I had to practice extensively to get the timing right. I also set up a script to tweet background information during my presentation.
And I wasn’t the only one. Everyone on our panel took it seriously. We prepared ahead of time. The audience response to our session was great.
I know a lot of people don’t attend conferences for the sessions. My friend Aaron Hockley’s recap of SXSW is talks about how the value of conferences is not the sessions, but in the connections that are made.
I agree with Aaron that tremendous value comes from the connections, but that’s no excuse for treating the people who attend your session poorly and wasting their time.
The contrast between the attitude of the fellow passengers on my shuttle and the work that Jay Rosen and his fellow panelists put into their SXSW session couldn’t be starker. In fact, it seems completely inappropriate that those who treat SXSW panels so disrespectfully should be able to share the metaphorical stage with Rosen and others who take the conference seriously.
The attitude that some have towards SXSW reflects poorly on those of us who take our roles as speakers and educators in the technology community seriously.
I don’t know if this is a pervasive attitude of speakers at SXSW, but I can say that the quality of content way not what I expected. I expected to be inspired as Jeremy Keith was. That’s what I want from any conference.
Perhaps I just picked sessions poorly, but instead of being inspired, my final and lasting impression was of a conference that didn’t deliver.
One of the recurring subjects of conversation at SXSW was the many competing location services. Attendees were using Foursquare and Gowalla extensively during the conference to help find their friends.
I decided to give them a try during the conference. That is until Foursquare decided to give me a “Hookup Badge.”
Apparently, the Hookup Badge is given to someone who checks in at two different hotels.
For anyone visiting Austin who doesn’t stay at the historic Driskill Hotel, there is a good chance you’re going to check in at two hotels during your trip. The Driskill is a must see and you will likely check in at the hotel you’re staying at.
That is what happened to me.
I checked in at the Driscoll Hotel when I met friends there. I purposely asked Foursquare not to tweet the check in because I feel like it is spam in my Twitter stream.
However, I didn’t remember that I had allowed Foursquare to post updates about badges that I won. Foursquare didn’t tweet the check in, but it did tweet about my “Hookup Badge.”
So part of the blame is mine. I shouldn’t have let Foursquare post to Twitter at all.
At the same time, I had no expectations that Foursquare would be posting inappropriate tweets. I’m a happily married man. Joking about hooking up while I’m on business travel is not funny.
Thankfully the damage was limited. A few months ago I disconnected Twitter from Facebook. Otherwise, my new “Hookup Badge” would have been shared with family members who would have no idea what Foursquare is nor understand Foursquare’s idea of a “funny” badge.
When I relayed this story with Péter Green of Finnish Mobile Association, he told me how he had received the “Hangover Badge,” and received many comments from his friends back home.
Those comments were funny, but imagine how quickly they would have turned into concerned or panic if the Hangover Badge was handed out to a recovering alcoholic who was half a world away.
I like the idea of gaming mechanics to get people to participate in a location-based service, but Foursquare seems to be making some big mistakes here:
- The incentive structure in the game should be known instead of a surprise. For example, if you check-in more times than another person, you become mayor. That’s well known and easy to understand. The Hookup and Hangover badges use rule combinations that you don’t known until you unwittingly unlock a badge.
- The badges indicate a lack of perspective on what issues they may cause for the people who receive them.
- The overall impression of the service based on these badges is one that is designed for party-going twenty-somethings. It’s hard to take such a service seriously.
We’ve heard a lot about location-based services and cell phone logs getting people in trouble for their infidelity. There’s no need for services like Foursquare to create problems where none exist.
As far as I’m concerned, this was inexcusable breach of trust. I deleted my Foursquare account and will not use their service again.
Unbeknownst to me until now, Spring is conference season. For the next two and half months, I’m attending a conference every two weeks. I’m already looking forward to June when the conference gauntlet ends.
One of the conferences I’m looking forward to the most is the Voices that Matter: iPhone Developers conference on April 24-25 in Seattle.
Why am I looking forward to it? A few reasons:
- There are some great speakers like Erica Sadun (who I had the pleasure of meeting at Foo Camp and is an absolutely brilliant iPhone developer), Aaron Hillegass, August Trometer, Suzanne Ginsburg, Erik Buck, Michael Daley, Joe Conway, Jonathan Rentzsch, Kevin Avila, and the list goes on.
- The schedule looks very focused and intensive. It is focused on getting people up to speed on building apps.
- It is only three hours away in Seattle so I get to see my Seattle friends and attend the conference.
- It is the only conference on my schedule that I’m NOT speaking at. I’ll actually get to relax and enjoy this one!
If you’re interested in attending the conference, I recommend signing up soon. The early bird rates end on March 12th and the conference organizers gave us a discount code that they said I could share with Mobile Portland and readers of our blog. The priority code PHBLOGS saves you $100 off the registration.
If you sign up before the early bird rate ends and use the discount code, the conference only costs $395 which is a great price for a two day conference. If you end up attending, please say hello.
In the interest of full disclosure, the conference organizers have given me a complimentary pass. As a general rule, when people offer discounts or good deals to Portland’s mobile community, I like to pass it on. I’ve done so in the past for other conferences and webinars that seem relevant.
While the complimentary pass is unrelated to passing on this information to you (I would would have shared it regardless), I thought it was important to disclose.
I’m traveling to SXSW for the first time this weekend. I’m speaking on a panel entitled iPad: New Opportunities for Content Creators on Saturday, March 13th at 11 am.
I’m looking forward to talking about the iPad. We had a great panel last month at Mobile Portland on the iPad that I moderated. I tried my best not to jump in and offer my opinion (sometimes succeeding better than other times). It will be fun to be able to talk iPad without trying to be a neutral moderator.
In addition, I’m going to be on a panel moderated by Carlo Longino of MobHappy at Mobile Monday Austin on Monday evening.
Immediately preceding the panel, Barbara Ballard of Little Springs Design will give a presentation on Mobile User Experience Design. Barbara is one of the leaders in mobile design. Her book and blog are must reads.
The Mobile Monday event is only a couple of blocks from the center of SXSW so you have no excuse not to be there!
Finally, if you’re also going to be in Austin for SXSW, I’d love to meet you. Either connect with me via the SXSW site, Twitter, or contact me directly.